Despite the war and the influenza outbreak in 1918, the population of Dunedin continued to grow. In the early 1920s it became clear to Monsignor Delany, who was the administrator of St Patrick’s parish that the growth in the Forbury area of the parish indicated there was need for a church-school to be built in the area. The distance to the nearest church meant many people were walking four or five miles to Mass. Distance from a Catholic school was also the reason why many Catholic children were attending local state schools. In 1933 after a meeting, the parishioners from the Forbury area formed fundraising committees to buy land on which they planned to build a church-school.

By the end of the year they had enough money to buy a section of land on Forbury Road and this was the first step in the establishment of St Bernadette’s parish and school. The fundraising continued with garden fetes, children’s galas, dances, jumble sales and card evenings which were the popular fundraising activities at that time.

On a cold winter’s day, June 24 1934, the foundation stone for the new church-school was blessed and laid and by December 23 the building was opened. It was decided to name the new church-school after St Bernadette who was a child Saint who had been recently canonised. The furniture for the five classrooms built above the church, was donated by a generous donor who wished to be anonymous.

On the first day of the new school year of 1935 St Bernadette’s School opened with 129 children most of whom came from St Clair, South Dunedin and Caversham. Their teachers were Sisters Carmel, Dominic, Dympna and Ligouri who was the principal.

The school was referred to as an “out-school” which meant the four Sisters, had to travel by tram to and from school each day from the main Mercy convent in McBride St which was known as the Mother House in South Dunedin. This daily routine continued for twenty years until a roster of parents was arranged to transport the Sisters by car in the morning.

The school roll was steady throughout the 1930s and 1940s but following the war there was a large influx of children and the roll reached 200. Classroom space became a problem and it was clear a new building was needed. Once again fundraising began and new classrooms were built which made life more comfortable for the Sisters and the children.

Throughout these years the routine of school life continued highlighted by celebrations of feast days, Sacramental Celebrations and concerts. Sport was a big part of the life of the school and St Bernadette’s teams excelled in netball which was then called basketball. There was also a large St Bernadette’s Girl Guides Group. At this time much of the Sisters’ income came from teaching children music, singing and speech out of school hours. Many of the children were very successful in speech and music examinations and they were provided with opportunities to share their talents by performing in school concerts.

One of the traditions of St Bernadette’s School, as in many other schools at this time, was the concert in the final term. Much work and rehearsing went into these events to maintain the high standard that was set. However a week before the concert was to be held in 1937 the school was closed due to a poliomyelitis (polio) outbreak. There were 116 cases throughout the country but the seriousness of the illness which caused the death or disability of many children had to be avoided. In the late 30s the school roll outgrew the accommodation.

A hall and a play shelter were added and linked to the other buildings by a covered walk way. In 1939, Sister Ligouri saw the need for a school library. Parents and parishioners helped to build shelves and donate books and soon a library was functioning well and encouraging children to develop a love of reading. In the same year the orchard next to the school was cleared, much to the boys’ disappointment, as a new presbytery was needed (see photograph above). Father Collins, the long serving and greatly loved parish priest had lived in a rented house which was no longer available. Fundraising began and parishioners gave generously enabling the new presbytery to be built and opened in 1940.

In 1943 the school roll rose to 163 and continued to rise to reach 200 in 1949. This caused crowded, cramped conditions in the small classrooms above the church and put the Sisters and children under a lot of stress. To alleviate the situation it was decided to build a new school and assembly hall. Fundraising began with the usual events: concerts, bazaars, balls and jumble sales. The new building was finally blessed and opened on December 6 1954 much to the delight of the whole community.

In 1960, as part of the celebrations of the 25th Jubilee of the opening of the school, the parents raised money to buy a car for the Sisters’ transport from their convent in McBride St to the school in Forbury Rd. This made life easier for the Sisters especially in the winter.
The parish life of St Bernadette’s flourished and was the centre of most parishioners’ lives and social activity. There were many parish groups that gave adults and children opportunities to meet and enjoy each other’s company. These included youth dances, a basketball club, a church choir, Girl Guide groups, schoolboy rugby and rugby league teams and the Home and School Association.

The school roll peaked in 1963 and children were taught in the old block as well as the new block. In 1966 Mrs B, Mathias was appointed as the first permanent lay teacher at the school. By 1971 the lay/religious teacher ratio was 50-50. This trend of change was evident in other parish schools throughout the 1970s and 80s as the Sisters aged and retired or moved on to new ministries. This meant they were gradually replaced by lay teachers until in 1984 Sister Moya McKeown brought the Mercy Sisters’ presence in the school for almost 50 years to an end. This change came just after St Bernadette’s School became integrated into the state system in April 1983. Mrs Jan Taylor became the first lay principal following on from the Sisters who had led the school for 47 years. With integration the school community faced new challenges of providing new buildings to meet integration standard.

Throughout the educational and building changes that have followed over the years into the 2000s the presence of the founding Sisters and those who followed has continued to be kept alive through celebrations of Catherine McAuley’s life by the devoted teachers, children and their families who promote her values and keep her Charism and stories of her life alive in St Bernadette’s School and the Forbury community.

Story re-told by Anne Kennedy [email protected]

References and Sources

Divide and Share – The Story of Mercy in the South 1897-1997
By Sister Stephanie Glen, 1996

Nobody did it better by John McCarthy 50th Jubilee Book 1985
The Turn of the Tide – A Historette to the establishment of St Bernadette’s Parish, Forbury, Dunedin By Father Peter Mee, 1977